From Chance Marathon Runner To CEO of Mile High Run Club; the Story of Willy Heath

Aitana G

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Reading Time: 5 minutes

William (Willy) Heath is not your average seasoned boutique fitness insider-turned-CEO.

Though athletic growing up by way of the track and swim teams, it wasn’t until 2011 when he lost a bet with a friend and had to run the NYC marathon (raising money for charity) with virtually no training, that the road to where he is today really opened up in front of him.

“Prior to that, I wasn’t exactly living a very healthy lifestyle,” Willy admits.

But in training for the race, he lost weight, and finished in 4:04, bursting into tears at the finish line.

“I realized I’d turned a leaf,” he says. “The training and racing process was addictive and transformative.”

And a turning point too, which led him to the role of CEO of Mile High Run Club, one of New York City’s premier fitness boutiques.

Though he was born in England, America was a big part of his life: his Dad moved to New York when Willy was 16, and he attended Boston University before landing in New York himself in 2005.

Early on, all of his internships and work experience were focused in finance (he worked for a Hedge Fund through college).

Even when Willy shifted gears and got a job at a branding firm (upon the advice of his dad, who suggested he try “something totally different for at least six months to see a new professional perspective”), he worked as a brand strategist for financial services firms.

The financial crisis of 2008 was the impetus Willy needed to finally make a major career pivot.

He moved out to the Hamptons, a series of oceanfront resort towns on the eastern tip of Long Island, NY. Willy saw a business opportunity to service the weekend warriors and seasonal residents who loved to enjoy the area’s cuisine (and cocktails!) and in 2008, created the company Lilybug Scooters, which consisted of an army of 40 drivers with scooters, in operation from March through October. LilyBug drivers would hop on a scooter, drive to where a customer who’d had a few drinks was dining, store their fold-up scooter neatly and compactly in the person’s trunk, drive the customer home, and then simply scoot off into the night and onto the next client.

A smashing success, Willy started trading the profits from LilyBug, then investing in other small businesses.

His fitness trajectory started with his first fitness investment in a private gym at which he himself was a client.

Around the same time, he lost that famous bet and ran the NYC marathon. More races followed, and then Willy completed his first Iron Man competition on August 11, 2012.

As his own training and interest in running and competing ramped up, so did his investments in more wellness businesses. He was then introduced to one of the founders of MHRC and came on board as a founder and board member, and helped raise the money to open.

Opening MHRC was, he explains, a long process: six months to flesh out the business plan, six months to raise funds, and six months to find and sign a lease; all in, almost two years of prep work before they opened their doors to studio #1 (in the Noho area of Manhattan) in November of 2014.

(Willy had shut down Lilybug Scooters in May of 2014, selling the scooters to another company). 

So there was the patience required to open and help operate a successful business…and the grit, because, he warns, a prospective founder has to be willing and able to do the dirty work.

“I work the front desk when it’s needed, and once taught a class when an instructor didn’t show!” Willy says proudly. 

He then again helped with the fundraising and opening of the second MHRC studio (in NYC’s Nomad area) on January 1, 2016.

Willy finally took over as CEO in July of 2018 (and MHRC’s third studio on the Upper East Side of Manhattan opened shortly thereafter in December of 2018).

What was the biggest challenge Willy faced upon evolving from founder/board member into the first line of defense as CEO?

“You have to invest so much in managing people, expectations, and disagreements,” he notes. “My job every single day is to make sure the team doesn’t encounter roadblocks and has the tools they need to do their job.”

One of his first steps after assuming the CEO mantle was to do a nose-to-tail evaluation of the business and cut, streamline, change, and/or reorganize as needed.

“I systematized all processes, and built processes for even the most simple tasks,” he says, adding, “The only way to eventually scale is to be repeatable. There has to be a process for everything.”

That included: changing the interviewing and onboarding process; changing the payroll process and company used for it; creating a budget, cash flow model, and financial projections; restructuring staffing for studios; improving MHRC’s coach training process; and solidifying objectives and key results and how to measure all of them.

“With everything we do, there should be a clear process and approach – if someone suddenly had to hand off their job to someone else, it should be easy and no problem,” he advises.

When Covid hit, MHRC adjusted rapidly. Within 24 hours of closing the studios, they had Instagram Live classes up (for free) and within a week, paid Zoom classes. They embraced outdoor training and now have eight outdoor classes per week.

“I asked myself,” Willy says, “How can we use the time when the brick and mortar is closed to further improve and evolve the business? What does the future of MHRC look like? For us, that started with infrastructure improvements and looking for new and diversified revenue streams. ”

“Covid forced a mindset shift”, he says.

And for MHRC, that has two key components: collaboration and content.

“Collaboration is the future of brands,” Willy declares. “It’s a huge opportunity to work with other brands that complement you but don’t compete with you.”

In fact, along with four other studios (Exhale, Swerve cycling, Fhitting Room, and Humming Puppy yoga), MHRC will join Drop Fitness, a major fitness and wellness collective opening in Livingston, NJ sometime next year. 

“I’m bullish on brick and mortar,” Willy says, noting, however, that it will likely be another 12-18 months before we’re back to normal (or normal-ish). “Experiential retail will definitely be back,” not least, he goes on to say, because we’re human beings and want in-person, IRL connections with other human beings.

In the meantime, the other prong to MHRC’s focus is content. 

They pre-recorded their signature classes on audio so people go use them for their own runs, either via stream or download. The company also creates strength-focused (and running-complementary) On Demand content.

“We are now a running-based content company,” Willy says. “It’s a fundamental shift in how we think of ourselves as a boutique studio – we’re no longer limited by four walls.”

And more important is the understanding that, according to Willy, the life cycle of content is much longer than a single in-person class. You can do so much with one piece of it – repurpose, re-edit, reuse, share on social, recut later into new pieces of content.

“It’s also shifted how we think about marketing. It used to be events-based, or we’d hold periodic sales on packages, or do themed classes,” Willy says.

“Today,” he adds, “We think more in terms of the services we provide, and we build different service funnels and break customers into different segments. We now deliver the right content to the right runner at the right time.”

Willy's Quick Takes

His advice for a CEO / Founder

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